A composed performance from the defending World and European Champions saw Spain move past France into the Euro 2012 semifinal with a 2-0 victory.
French coach Laurent Blanc redesigned his team in a defensive formation in a bid to slow the Spanish juggernaut, but despite some good moments in the second half, France were unable to maintain consistent pressure on the Spainish back line.
Blanc attempted to crowd out Spain’s midfield maestros, playing five in the center of the park, using fullback Debuchy as a midfielder. Blanc left offensive minded midfielders Samir Nasri and Jeremy Menez on the bench, isolating Karim Benzema up front, but for help from winger Franck Ribery.
Cesc Fabregas, operating for Spain as a so called false number nine, nearly won a penalty in a tangle with Gael Clichy just five minuted into the game, but there was no call. Spain, as is generally the case, had the ball the majority of time, and finally broke down the French in the 19th minute. Fullback Jordi Alba took a nice little pass from Iniesta and blew past Debuchy on the left wing, before cooly picking out his cross to Xabi Alonso. The Real Madrid man powered home his header and Spain had the only goal they would need.
30 minutes in France got what would turn out to be their only shot on goal when Yohan Cabaye tested Iker Casillas from 30 yards on a free kick. “Saint Iker” passed that test with flying colors, keeping out Cabaye’s top corner effort.
France attacked more often as the half wound down, with Ribery their most dangerous option. But increased possesion did not bring increased goal chances and Spain happily trotted to the locker room 1-0 ahead.
Spain is of course well nigh impossible to come back on, and in Euro play they have never lost after taking a 1-0 lead, boasting a 14-0-2 record.
There were no player changes made at the half, although France did come out more aggressively. Florent Malouda, who lost his mark on the opening goal, was making some good runs for France and Debuchy got on the end of a fine Ribery cross only to head just high.
Still it was Spain that nearly added to their tally when a brilliant through ball sprang Fabregas in behind the French defense. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris made a great save, sliding out to clear the danger.
Both managers made changes in the 65th minute, with France introducing Nasri and Menez for Malouda and Debouchy. Spain sacrificed David Silva for Pedro and one minute later added Fernando Torres for Fabregas.
Ribery made great runs and Casillas did well to cut his dangerous cross. But France’s task was beginning to look more and hopeless as Spain played their glorious game of keep away.
France’s high priced stars were reduced to chasing Spain around the pitch vainly trying to get the ball back, while the Spaniards calmly picked out pass after pass.
Finally at the end of yet another one of Spain’s passing sequences, a bit of Pedro trickery earned the defending champions a 90th minute penalty. When Alonso’s shot beat Lloris it was goal, set and match to Spain, and on to an all Iberian semifinal against Portugal and the red hot Ronaldo.
France may have paid the price for playing against their own strengths, but then we will never know if a more attacking style would have seen the French torn apart by this fantastic Spanish team.
Soccer fans will be licking their lips in anticipation of this semifinal matchup. Can Ronaldo make this tournament his own, as he is threatening to, or will Spain be too strong for their neighbors?
I can’t wait.